Gary Wozniak knows firsthand the frustration of missing out on job opportunities because of a criminal record.
“I was a stockbroker at the time with a really severe cocaine and alcohol addiction and I used client’s money to support my addiction for the last couple of years and I ended up stealing money basically,” Wozniak said. “So, I got out of prison in 1991 and no one would hire me. After three months of doors being shut in my face and my last interview with Enterprise Car Rental – they were new back then – they wouldn’t even hire me for a desk clerk job. I was like screw this, I’m tired of people saying no.”
Wozniak decided to go into business for himself and never looked back. That’s what eventually led him to start Recovery Park, an urban farming non-profit business that subscribes to the farm to table movement. It also gives jobs to those individuals that have the most difficulty finding work. Those with criminal records, or people recovering from drug addictions.
The idea was initially hatched in 2008 while Wozniak worked as a consultant for SHAR House, a drug rehabilitation facility in Detroit. They were looking for new ideas to create revenue streams. Wozniak said he determined employing residents, specifically those coming out of rehab or prison was a way to make a go of a profitable business.
That’s when he happened upon the idea of urban farming. For starters, Wozniak was no stranger to farming. He learned farming while a youngster growing up in Shelby Township, which was rural back then. He also worked at the former Frank’s Nursery as a young adult, co-managing 20-acres of plants grown by the retailer.
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“The cool part of farming is you can take someone that has no farming skill sets at all and within three months they can learn all the basic skills to perform their job and perform it well,” Wozniak said.
Thanks to a five-year land deal in 2015 with the city of Detroit, Recovery Park controls 60 acres of a 105-acre footprint on Detroit’s lower eastside that is being used for urban farming, said Wozniak, Recovery Park’s CEO. Meanwhile, the neighborhood that houses Recovery Park is ripe with largely vacant land and potential job candidates. Recovery Park, since its inception in 2012, has reached out to the local community through a series of public meetings to inform them of its plans and to seek their blessing.
“The majority of the people were supportive,” Wozniak said. “They like the idea that something’s coming to the neighborhood. They like the idea that the jobs were coming from the city, that they were food-based, so it’s not just, you know, traditional auto manufacturing-based or something like that. The other thing they like is this zip code (48211) has a high percentage of people coming out of prison, so it’s going to create some economic opportunity for people that are really challenged in the workplace.”
Recovery Park goes to drug treatment facilities in the city and holds jobs fairs with the department of corrections in addition to posting openings on various job websites, Wozniak said. It hires workers in the spring for the ensuing growing season.
The workers start out at $11 per hour, but also receive support services for up to three years. Those services include help with housing, transportation, financial services like opening a bank account and other classes. After 90 days, the employees get 100 percent employee-paid healthcare and their first raise. After a year or so on the job, the workers earn on average $14 per hour, Wozniak said.
Wozniak’s response to people who think the wage is low, is that some of those employees that served time in prison were paid 11 cents per hour by the state to work. “We generally get 80 to 100 applicants for every job we post,” Wozniak said.
Currently its greenhouse employs seven workers during the growing season, he said. The greenhouses are dormant in the winter months – that’s when Recovery Park has to layoff the employees until the next growing season.
Wozniak is pleased with the productivity of the employees Recovery Park has managed to hire. He said they have helped the business live up to its operating mission of being an advocate and supplier of produce in the farm to table movement. “Our goal is to have from harvest to your plate within 48 hours or less – and we have been meeting that,” Wozniak said.
Recovery Park grows tomatoes, greens, edible flowers, beans, peas, carrots, radishes, kale, cucumbers, arugula, squash – in all it has grown about 170 different varieties of product, Wozniak said. But going forward it plans to reduce its produce down to three-different types of lettuce so it can grow to scale.
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Recovery Park’s produce found its way into the kitchens of 130 Detroit-area restaurants last summer, including Chartreuse, Selden Standard, SheWolf, the Detroit Athletic Club, The Henry Ford and more.
Soon Recovery Park will have more positions to fill. It is currently working on plans to develop a two-acre; 35-foot tall hydroponic greenhouse on Hendrie and Palmer. This development will enable Recovery Park to go from $200,000 in revenue to $6 million in revenue and from seven employees to 30 employees by August of 2020, Wozniak said. Employees in the hydroponic greenhouse will work year-round.
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The eventual goal is that the hydroponic greenhouse operations will have 60 acres of land under glass and employ up to 300 people in 15 years. Unlike the traditional greenhouse that involves growing soil-based plants in a controlled environment, hydroponic farming relies solely on water. Seeds for plants are placed in special floating tray racks that rest in a pond of water filled with nutrients to promote plant growth. These trays are then showered with special lighting from above. The plants are grown in a controlled environment just like in traditional greenhouses.
Recovery Park will start out growing lettuce in its new hydroponic greenhouse. But hydroponic greenhouses can grow almost every type of produce that people eat. Ranging from tomatoes to cucumbers and a variety of peppers, Wozniak said.
Jeff Gilbert will be leading the charge for Recovery Park’s hydroponic farming efforts. Gilbert, the hydroponic grower and chief innovation officer, will also be responsible for training employees to work in the hydroponic greenhouse. The idea is to simplify the jobs that need to be performed daily in the greenhouse.
Learn more about Recovery Park on their website.